School Discipline in Virginia – Part 1 – PBIS

by James C. Sherlock

Updated Feb 1 at 8:13:25 with a correction to IES assessment of PBIS.

Newport News Schools PBIS Capacity Assessments – Courtesy Dr. Jaruan M. Ransome, Program Administrator, Student Conduct & Discipline

Newport News Schools first implemented Virginia Tiered Systems of Supports (VTSS) and its discipline component, Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), in the 2017-18 school year.

That year Newport News Schools was in Cohort 3 of VDOE’s VTSS program, which provides support at the division level through grant funding and technical assistance. PBIS is implemented in every Newport News school.

In April of 2022, for the second time, those schools were rated by the state as “fluent” in the implementation of VTSS/PBIS.

Good to know. I mean that.

That means that there can be no confusion as to what has gone wrong in Newport News Schools. The behavioral and educational chaos there represents some combination of system failure and individual failure.

But the point is that was always going to happen in many schools, especially those in the toughest neighborhoods.

PBIS is dangerous by design.

It can work, but in trying to trade some safety for a lot of equity, it too often gets neither.

And even its proponents have found out that without safety and order, nothing else about the schools can work.

Here is a list I developed from multiple sources, including checks of each of the 132 school division websites, to show which school divisions have implemented VTSS/PBIS in Virginia.

  • Yellow background’s indicate implementation in all or most division schools.
  • Grey backgrounds represent implementation in a few division schools.  t is hard to tell whether those individual schools still use it.
  • School divisions on white backgrounds apparently never tried it.

It is unlikely to be 100% correct, but it is close.

We are going to examine in this new series discipline and mental health in Virginia’s Public Schools.

They must be considered together to understand the scope of what is presented by government as defining solutions to school disorder, mental health and safety problems. Because of the breadth and depth of each subject, we will discuss in this series first discipline, and then mental health.

This first article on discipline will let its most fervent supporters define PBIS.

Then I will show where it is used and not used in Virginia school divisions.

In later discipline articles we will examine PBIS further, Virginia laws, regulations and guidelines on discipline.

PBIS. We’ll focus on Virginia Tiered Systems of Supports (VTSS) in general and its Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) discipline system in particular.

The foundation of Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) was developed in the 70’s and 80’s and originally called RTI (Response to Interventions), a tiered approach to identifying and helping special-ed kids academically.

PBIS was originally designed very specifically as a similarly tiered approach to solve what the University of Oregon School of Education defined as a “school-to-prison pipeline” for Black kids.  Others jumped on board.

To fight “systemic racism” that they found by so desperately wanting to, even in Black-run school divisions.

Two primary means to that end were and are:

  • refraining from calling law enforcement in the case of in-school misdemeanors; and
  • keeping kids in school, even if suspended.

And, in many areas where that did not work, frustrated practitioners removed in-school law enforcement officers called School Resource Officers (SROs). Many of those same divisions, now with a shortage of law enforcement officers in the communities they serve, are trying to get them back.

So PBIS intentionally absorbed behavioral and mental health problems into the schools.  It has been tried in an increasing number of schools since the year 2000.

Virginia’s VTSS and MTSS in general now have combined RTI and PBIS.

As defined by its most fervent supporters, PBIS is:

“an evidence-based, tiered framework for supporting students’ behavioral, academic, social, emotional, and mental health.

When implemented with fidelity, PBIS improves social emotional competence, academic success, and school climate.

It also improves teacher health and wellbeing.

It is a way to create positive, predictable, equitable and safe learning environments where everyone thrives.”

Or not.

Again quoting:

“Schools implementing PBIS:

  • Use a continuum of evidence-based practices to support student needs
  • Engage students, families, and community members to co-create culturally responsive practices
  • Regularly check the effectiveness of their practices
  • Rely on teams to guide implementation
  • Use data to identify strengths, uncover needs, and monitor student progress
  • Implement universal screening
  • Develop content expertise through coaching and on-going professional development.”

And be prepared to defend against blows from feral students and duck gunshots?

In schools in highly stressed and dysfunctional communities, my own reaction is that is a preposterous overreach. On what leafy university campuses was PBIS developed?

In other words, you have to be kidding.

The federal Institute of Educational Sciences (IES) records show that there is strong evidence that PBIS offers no positive value to education or discipline. I will detail that next time.

Of the nearly 100,000 public schools in the United States in 2018, 27,000 employed PBIS.

Newport News Schools implemented PBIS five years ago and has been graded as “fluent” in VTSS/PBIS for more than three years.

I’ll leave it to readers to assess how well it has “improved school climate, teacher health and well being, and (provided) positive, predictable, equitable and safe learning environments where everyone thrives” in Newport News Schools.

And in other school divisions on the list.

A federal threat

PBIS has been around since 2000.  It was a focus of a bill introduced by Senator Barack Obama in 2007.

The Civil Rights Divisions of the Obama Justice Department and Department of Education in January 2014 jumped into the debate about the most effective ways to manage discipline in schools with their famous joint “Dear Colleague letter.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said the racial disparity in school suspensions wasn’t a reflection of problems in society but the result of “racial discrimination” in our schools.

The lawsuits threatened would be based on disparate impact as measured by relative numbers of suspensions and expulsions of black students vs. white students that “are not explained by more frequent or more serious misbehavior by students of color.”

That letter offered the principles of PBIS as offering evidence of good faith attempts to avoid those charges.

The Departments strongly support schools in their efforts to create and maintain safe and orderly educational environments that allow our nation’s students to learn and thrive. Many schools have adopted comprehensive, appropriate, and effective programs demonstrated to: (1) reduce disruption and misconduct; (2) support and reinforce positive behavior and character development; and (3) help students succeed. Successful programs may incorporate a wide range of strategies to reduce misbehavior and maintain a safe learning environment, including conflict resolution, restorative practices, counseling, and structured systems of positive interventions.”

It has not had the impact that the authors hoped.

Twenty-one percent of public schools in the United States used PBIS when it was published in 2014.

Twenty-seven percent used PBIS four years later.

Bottom line. PBIS is still experimental until proven otherwise. No school division in Virginia is required to use it, despite the heavy federal and state jawboning.

It asks schools to deal in school with kids that have proven — PBIS’ own Tier Three — to be lawbreakers (criminal misdemeanors are by policy not reported to police) to police and/or have mental health problems, which PBIS doctrine makes the schools’ problems.

That, even if well meant, has proven repeatedly to be unacceptably dangerous.

At a minimum, it did not stand up to the pressures of COVID in most of the school divisions who have implemented it.

Ask the Newport News schoolteachers.

Much more on this in future articles in this series.